Often described as one of the toughest bike races in the lower 48 states, the Arrowhead 135 challenges even the most prepared riders. This is a journal by a non-athlete's participation in an event where starting is often just as much a challenge as finishing.

First Half - Arrowhead 135
January 31, 2011

I am at the left, in front to the yellow triangles with the "I" reflector, Eric is just exiting the frame on the far right

[Note: This is Part 2; jump to Pre-Race or Second Half]

Segment 1: Easing into race

Someone counted down the last minute, then we took off, bikes out first, and almost right away riders began to stretch out along the trail. It was pretty fast and hard from the groomer, a few snowmobiles and the lead riders making a nice bike path to follow. The gray light of dawn was just creeping in and people said the temp had dropped a bit out on the trail, but it was still comfortable. Within the first hour, both Eric and I stopped to adjust clothing. I took a drink to keep my camelbak clear, and got moving again. I passed someone changing a tire.

The sun came up, yellow filtered though a hazy-overcast sky. Snow from the recent storm hung in the trees. The whole scene was like "winter wonderland meets Mars". Around this time I stopped again for a minute, and I thought it was a good time for a photo, but the camera battery was frozen. That pretty much ended the photo ops. Rookie mistake. I also discovered my camelbak was frozen. Damn! Ok, that was a lot more serious than my camera, though I did have another Nalgene full of water so there was no danger of not having enough to drink, but it would slow me down a lot. I got riding again to keep from getting chilled, and pondered what was happening to it and decided it was just the elbow in the bite valve. I spent the next two hours trying to clear it and thinking of possible ways to clear it and then keep it clear. It was a good exercise to pass time.

The trail was in great shape overall. The snow had hardened well, and the groomer had gone over it. The lead guys were screaming. I am fortunate, as were it in any worse condition, I may have struggled more. As it was, I set kind of a medium-slow pace and just went with it.

The first segment of 35 miles is fast, pretty and mostly flat. After about 3 hours, I figured out how to fix my camelbak. I made a plan so that I could move efficiently when I stopped. What I knew was that I was going to have to stop to drink from my Nalgene - which was full of hot water at the start. Knowing that would still be pretty warm, I realized I could just dip my bite valve into the warm water and clear it right up. I also figured out what was happening. After I drink, I would blow the water back into the reservoir. But there were little drops still in the hose that would run down to the valve and freeze. So I just had to blow the water back in, shake the hose so the water would settle, then suck the valve clear. Worked fine for the rest of the ride.

Everything was working ok (except the camera), not cold at all, and was feeling good. 5h 20m to the first checkpoint, where it was chaos.

Segment 2: Hills and Twilight

At the first checkpoint, I stopped for about an hour. I had a big bowl of chili-mac and a gatoraide. Eric was there, but just getting ready to leave. We chatted for a bit, then he rolled out and I rested for a bit longer. Two guys sitting near me were dropping out - one guy suffering from asthma, the other with frostbite on a toe. Don't skimp on the footwear, people. I replaced all my water with fresh and hot, rearranged a few things, then headed back out.

The hills kicked in soon after the checkpoint, and slowed me down quite a bit. A few snow machines were out and about, and they messed up the 'hard line' in places. The hard line was the track that all the cyclists ahead of me left. Someone will find a good path in the snow, then all the other bikes would follow in nearly the same place. The result was a track about a foot wide that was nice, packed and smooth riding. A lot of the race was spent finding the hard line. But when the sleds passed, often they would chew it up. Eventually it'd reappear, but for several miles you might find yourself breaking trail.

I heard a buzz, and at first thought it was a snowmobile, but then I realized it was a low-flying plane. I'd seen on the web site that someone had chartered a plane, and as it passed over and followed the trail I gave a big wave.

The scene was quite spectacular, and it was amazingly quiet. With all the snow in the trees, sounds did not carry at all. When I'd stop to adjust clothes, I was instantly aware of how quiet it was. The hills added to the scenery, and it seemed like there was a postcard at every turn. It was truly gorgeous, but the price of admission was steep.

At one point I came over a small rise and was surprised to find two guys on the side of the trail with a tipi giving out hot cocoa. They were out there from one of the sponsors, and thanking the participants. We chatted for just a few moments and then I rolled on. It was still kind of weird. After a little while, I noticed the tracks of a 29er - a standard mountain bike. This was Lance, who I met at breakfast the day before the race. I knew I was getting close since his were the top most tracks on the hard line. And I could see he was struggling. Often his tracks showed his wheels slipping out or digging deep into the snow, whereas the snowbike tracks were straight and had almost no depth. I caught him just before sunset, a few hours out from the checkpoint. We chatted for a minute or so, then I rolled on.

[Photo of Lance on his 29er]

I started anticipating the time to add my layer and prep for the "transition", and after doing that watched the stars pop out. I was getting tired now, and ready to get to the lake and the checkpoint. The extreme flat of the lake was a welcome relief from the hills, but it was cold out there. Even the tiny hill and steps to the cabin were tough. The cabin was great after another 7 and a quarter hours on the trail. Total Time for the first half was 13:34.

[Bike at the halfway point]

Photos courtesy of Jim Johnson at I-Falls Journal, Mark Scotch, aerial shot from Star Tribune

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